Kon Artist?

Though evidence against his theory grew, Kon-Tiki sailor Thor Heyerdahl never steered from his course

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The first time I heard this, I didn’t believe it: the islanders have a rich tradition of making up their own history, and they naturally wanted to seem like the shrewd ones in this relationship. But the implication that Aku-Aku was riddled with genial deceptions by Heyerdahl and the islanders, on one another and the world, came up over and over, with only minor variation.

One of the most interesting accounts came from a man whose secret cave was the source of 47 of the celebrated stone figures. In his 1975 book, The Art of Easter Island, Heyerdahl described at length how he determined their authenticity, concluding, “It was obvious to all of us that Pedro Pate could not have staged this cave. ...” Pate, now deceased, was a 73-year-old fisherman and carver at the time of my visit, and he laughed at the idea of authenticity. When he’d first brought a sack of carvings to Heyerdahl’s camp, he said Heyerdahl refused to look at them. The venue was wrong. “He said, ‘No, no, no, you take these things to the caves,’” where Heyerdahl could discover them.

At Pate’s cave, Heyerdahl wrote, he was particularly impressed with a carving of a two-masted reed boat, on which the dust lay a half-inch thick. He carried it out of the cave himself. To demonstrate that no modern islander could have produced such a masterpiece, Heyerdahl reported that one of the best carvers on the island had tried to create a replica; the result, he wrote, was clumsy and unconvincing.

I showed Pate a two-page photograph of the reed boat from Heyerdahl’s book, and he grinned. He’d carved the boat himself, he said. Dubious, I offered him $100 to carve such a boat now, 37 years later, and he accepted. When I visited him again, he was working in front of his house, with the half-formed sculpture propped up on a block of wood and his chisels, rasps and an adze laid out beneath him on a piece of corrugated cardboard.

A few days later, he presented me with the 18-inch-long reed boat he had carved. It was as good as the one in the book. I paid him, and as he wrapped the boat for me to take, he told me confidentially, like a shopkeeper suggesting a second pair of pants to go with a new suit, that he had actually carved two.

When I got the news, ten years later, that Heyerdahl had died, I retrieved that old carving from my yard. It’s broken into pieces now, and clotted with leaf litter and mud. I phoned an Easter Island archaeologist, William Ayres, who chairs the Pacific Island Studies program at the University of Oregon, and he confirmed that many of Heyerdahl’s cave carvings are now deemed modern. I leafed through my old notes from an interview with an islander who used to kid Heyerdahl in later years about the faked carvings. But Heyerdahl stuck by his story to the end. Once, at a conference, a colleague asked him how he could persist with the South American hypothesis when his own archaeologists had produced overwhelming evidence that the Easter Island culture had, in fact, come from Polynesia. Heyerdahl looked down at him like a giant crane peering down on a small worm, and he said, ‘‘Well, I have my audience.”

An audience is what everyone who works in the field ultimately wants: a chance to climb up out of the dust and make the world say, “Ah!” But at what cost? Turning over Pedro Pate’s sculpture and studying it under the light at my desk, it seemed to me that what I held in my hand was that titillating and very dangerous thing: a good story.          

As a child, author Richard Conniff regarded Thor Heyerdahl as a hero.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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